Lofty Ambitions has been following the space shuttle Endeavour for a long time now (read posts HERE and HERE). This was the orbiter we saw land at Edwards Air Force Base in 2008. Last year, we flew to Kennedy Space Center to see Endeavour’s last launch, as well as the earlier not-launch. When we returned to Florida last summer for the last-ever space shuttle launch, in that case for STS-135 on Atlantis, we had a personal tour of Endeavour in the Orbiter Processing Facility by Shuttle Transition and Retirement Flow Director Stephanie Stilson. We’ve spent almost four years getting to know this particular orbiter, and now it’s coming home to California in September.
Today, we woke early and bucked rush-hour traffic to be at the California Science Center for a press conference announcing the plans for the transfer of Endeavour from NASA to the museum. Jeffrey Rudolph, President and CEO of the California Science Center, is anxious for this orbiter to begin what he calls its “enduring mission” of education as a museum artifact. (See our video interview with Rudolph HERE.) He also finally shared specific dates: September 17 for Endeavour to depart Kennedy Space Center, September 20 for the arrival of the orbiter at Los Angeles International Airport, and October 12-13 for the orbiter to wend its way through the streets of Inglewood and Los Angeles.
The mayors of those two cities couldn’t be happier. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called Endeavour “a marvel of engineering and ingenuity” and “a testament of what humanity can achieve,” in addition to being important to Southern California’s aviation and spaceflight history. Based on the move of the “Levitated Mass” boulder through the streets to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Villaraigosa asserts that the shuttle’s move can “become an impromptu celebration.” He’s especially pleased with the urban forestry arrangements, in which trees will have to be removed along the orbiter’s route but will be replaced, on the science center’s dime, on a two-to-one basis.
Inglewood Mayor James T. Butts followed by saying, “Space exploration is like the Olympics. It’s a time to feel good.” Those sentiments echoed what we heard this past weekend at Planetfest 2012 about the Mars rover landing, and his words resonated well because the California Science Center is a stone’s throw from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where Olympic events were held in 1932 and 1984 (the only stadium to host twice). The son of an engineer who worked on the X-15 aircraft, Butts said that space exploration “represents the opportunity to gain answers and insights beyond our pale existence.” He’s looking forward to the celebration, which will include a stop of the orbiter en route on October 13 in front of his own city hall and a stop at the corner of Crenshaw and Martin Luther King Boulevards.
By specific dates, all these officials mean subject to weather criteria for the orbiter’s cross-country flight atop the former United Airlines Boeing-747 that was adapted into the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA) years ago. The orbiter’s underside—especially those black thermal protection tiles—are particularly susceptible to damage from moisture and debris, so in order to take off from Kennedy Space Center, the SCA must fly a relatively calm, sunny path across the United States. It’s no wonder, then, that, while Endeavour is scheduled to land in California on September 20, it won’t make its way to the museum until October 13. Removing 212 streetlights in Los Angeles would be difficult to reschedule if the orbiter were delayed, so a long window between arrival at LAX and move to the museum allows for the flexibility NASA needs for the date of departure from Kennedy Space Center.
More details of exactly what the transfer process entails are being revealed, though we know the basic scenario from “Discovery Departure,” and plans are still in the works. We plan to follow Endeavour all the way home and are already perusing our schedules to see which of us can be where when. After all, we have some important obligations at our day jobs. At this point, we think NASA (and United Space Alliance) and the California Science Center picked pretty good dates for our calendars. Still, we know from two not-launches that no date and time will be firm until those SCA wheels lift off from the Kennedy Space Center runway and the orbiter begins its last flight.